Distance Technologies augmented reality car heads-up display hands-on

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The Windshield of the Future? A Startup Aims to Turn Windshields into Immersive 3D Displays

Car infotainment systems are pushing the boundaries of screen size, with automakers like Ford introducing pillar-to-pillar touchscreens that dominate dashboards. But a new startup, Distance Technologies, is going even further, aiming to turn your windshield into a full-color, 3D heads-up display (HUD).

Distance Technologies, founded by the co-founders of enterprise headset maker Varjo, unveiled its prototype at the Augmented World Expo in Long Beach, California. The company’s goal is to transcend the limitations of flat, 2D HUDs, offering a more expansive and immersive experience for drivers.

The Distance Technologies prototype uses an LCD panel, positioned to project a transparent image onto a windshield with a reflective coating. This approach shares conceptual similarities with existing car HUDs, commonly found in aftermarket accessories and integrated options from brands like Volvo and Mercedes-Benz. However, Distance Technologies aims for greater scale and spatial depth.

The prototype functions akin to a projected, glasses-free 3D monitor. Its large LCD panel incorporates a parallax barrier capable of displaying slightly different images for each eye. Eye-tracking cameras monitor the driver’s gaze, dynamically redrawing the image accordingly. Jussi Mäkinen, co-founder and CMO of Distance Technologies, emphasizes the software-driven nature of their system, stating, "Our core is in software-defined optics." While the company details a parallax barrier for the current hardware, Mäkinen emphasizes that it’s a temporary solution during software development.

In a demonstration environment simulating a windshield, the prototype showcased its potential. The projected display offered a large, crisp screen capable of displaying anything from traditional HUD elements like speedometers to detailed 3D visualizations.

The system envisions seamless integration with voice and gesture controls, and the prototype was connected to an Ultraleap hand tracker, allowing interactions like accepting phone calls through gestures without diverting attention from the road. The full-color projection also allows for video display, potentially positioning features like rear-facing camera feeds directly on the windshield.

Hypothetical applications for the technology extend beyond basic information display, drawing on vehicle sensors to create compelling augmented reality experiences. Distance Technologies envisions using lidar or other sensors to place virtual signs realistically within a driver’s immediate environment or enhance nighttime visibility with night vision scans. For pilots, a detailed 3D topographic map could be projected on the cockpit, eliminating the need for headsets or eyepieces.

However, the prototype, born from several months of development, reveals the typical challenges faced by emerging display technologies. It’s currently significantly more expensive than the targeted hundreds-of-dollar price point for manufacturers. Brightness also presents a major hurdle. The prototype operates at around 100 nits, sufficient in a controlled environment but impractical for outdoor use, which requires a brightness level closer to 10,000 nits. The need for a large LCD panel to project a similarly large display further complicates the cost and design.

The eye-tracking system also introduces its own challenges. The constantly redrawing image to compensate for the driver’s gaze currently suffers from high latency, causing wavering in demonstrations during movement. The sensors also exhibit sensitivity to factors like long hair or hats, disrupting tracking and causing a distorted display of crisscrossing lines on the windshield, potentially posing a serious danger.

Perhaps the most concerning issue is the potential for eye strain. During demonstrations of complex 3D visualizations like topographic maps or city navigation, eye fatigue set in after just minutes, even while navigating simpler displays like projected speedometers. While the author’s individual vision situation might contribute to this experience, the issue of eye strain is not entirely isolated, as observed by another participant.

If this experience becomes widespread among drivers, it would significantly detract from Distance Technologies’ core pitch, which hinges on reducing eye strain by blurring the line between information and the real world. The promise of seamless information integration is, at this point, an idealistic goal.

Distance Technologies is still working on identifying a suitable market for their technology. The team is currently engaged with manufacturers of consumer vehicles, aiming to replicate the success of their Varjo ventures, which included partnerships with Volvo and Kia. However, Distance Technologies might also explore niche markets like military vehicles or aircraft, where HUDs are already prevalent.

If the prototype can overcome its limitations and secure commercial partnerships, it will be crucial for car companies to utilize the technology responsibly.

The current wave of screen-focused infotainment features has already led to driver frustration and distractions, a trend further exacerbated by the introduction of AR capabilities. The potential for failure points in such a critical system needs to be carefully addressed, particularly in the early phases of development.

While Distance Technologies’ windshield prototype remains in its early stages, it presents a compelling vision for the future of car interiors. Nonetheless, it’s still too early to definitively declare it the windshield of the future.

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David Green
David Green
David Green is a cultural analyst and technology writer who explores the fusion of tech, science, art, and culture. With a background in anthropology and digital media, David brings a unique perspective to his writing, examining how technology shapes and is shaped by human creativity and society.